In my previous four articles on postmodernism, I have written about how films can be postmodern in their form and style. In this final article, I want to tie up all the loose ends – to provide something of a conclusion to my series of articles. So in this article, I will be identifying the ways in which films can be postmodern in their content and in the themes they explore; and climactically, I will be examining the genesis of postmodern cinema and where the future of postmodern cinema lies.
One of the core ideologies of postmodern history and philosophy is that truth is relative. To generalise the idea, postmodernists believe that an historian’s analysis of an historical event will inevitably be coloured by their individual biases. Some postmodernists believe that ‘truth’ is constructed through social norms and assumptions; others believe that truth can be found through a methodical, objective study of events; and others believe there is no definitive morality or rational way of thinking. Facts and falsehoods are interchangeable.
This idea extends to filmmaking. As filmmakers retrospectively depict historical events in their films, using a medium that may not have been prevalent in the era they are portraying, they can never represent the past with complete accuracy and veracity. Some filmmakers embrace this limitation. Quentin Tarantino, who I’ve mentioned as a quintessential postmodernist director, outwardly questions the truths that Western audiences have been presented with – namely the conventional, Western understandings of WWII and slavery. In his 2009 Inglourious Basterds, he has the Basterds kill Hitler for fuck’s sake.
Other directors explore how personal memory and bias can infiltrate objective depictions of the past. For example, Andrei Tarkovsky’s extraordinary 1975 The Mirror explores how we perceive history through the lens of our involvement in that history, and how this creates an inaccurate, mirror image of reality. Through its fractured narrative – with vacillating scenes that originate from dreams, unreliable memories and actual events – we get a glimpse into Tarkovsky’s own personal accounts of WWII and the Sino-Russian conflict.*
Documentarians also call into question the certainty and veracity of the past and the influence of subjectivities in the construction of ‘fact’. Errol Morris’ 1988 The Thin Blue Line is one such documentary. The Thin Blue Line tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man who was convicted of murdering a police officer and was sentenced to life in prison. The documentary reveals how Adams was wrongly convicted, and a year after the film was released, Adams was exonerated. Morris examines perjured witnesses and the corrupt Dallas justice system, who ostensibly wanted to see someone – anyone – receive the death penalty for the policeman’s death. Morris does not want to impose a conventional narrative on the events – the typical documentary voice-over is replaced by a Philip Glass score. As much as he is aware that he has a subjective agenda – to see Adams acquitted – and can never be entirely objective, Morris’ retroactive questioning of the unequivocal certainty of Adams’ conviction reflects a postmodern sensibility.
A more recent example is Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell from this year which, despite being an imperfect and repetitious film which drastically loses its momentum after an hour, displays some truly fascinating postmodern observations. The film is about the enigmatic and impulsive life of Sarah Polley’s mother Diane, and discovering who Sarah’s father really is. However, when you look at the film as separate from Polley and as a whole entity, it is a film about how one’s subjectivities and biases permeate one’s perspective of a personality or issue. It is not necessarily a film with an over-reliance on selective editing; rather, it is about how selective editing can be used by filmmakers to render other opinions subordinate. It reflects upon the imposition of narrative in documentaries by using many docufictive recreations. We see Polley reshoot scenes she is not happy with, but keep both versions of in the final product. It is about how no single perspective of Diane can ever come close to representing her life accurately.
Ultimately, there is no definitive time or place where postmodernist cinema began, and it is unclear whether or not postmodernism will influence filmmaking in the future. In many regards, postmodernism was crystallised by post-WWII reconstruction, and was popularised with the loss of Western idealism after JFK’s assassination. There are movements in modernist film history where elements of postmodernism started to seep through. The French New Wave, while being a post-war movement that emphasised neo-realist narratives over conventional narrative structures, is ultimately a modernist film movement given its social realism and unabashed faith in the ‘auteur’ as the sole authoritative voice in a film. Tarkovsky’s aforementioned The Mirror can, indeed, be perceived as a modernist film because of its distortion of the reality of the natural world in a similar way that Expressionist art does.
The Russian avant-garde is often regarded to be the epitome of modernist film. Modernist art often concerned itself with the technologies of the post-Industrial era and the impact of these technologies on the natural landscape. From Futurism – a movement infatuated with the kinetics and dynamism of modernity – to Constructivism – a movement concerned with the objective functionalities of modern mechanisms – to Dadaism – with its ‘readymade’ sculptures of modern objects – to Surrealism, the love-hate relationship between modernists and new technologies is embodied.
One could easily argue that Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera is the quintessential modernist film. The film depicts the dynamic movement of a bustling Soviet cityscape, the Industrial tasks that its inhabitants partake in, and objectively looks at the functions and practicalities of an archetypal modern invention – the camera. However, the film’s experimentation with the filmic form, from jump cuts to split-screens to double-exposure, its perspicacious self-reflexivity, its eschewing of a narrative order, and its obfuscation of the distinctions between dreams and reality were highly influential on postmodern filmmakers.
Surely if tenets of postmodernism have been evident in film since 1929, then its demise must be imminent. Indeed, some commentators have reflected on the death of postmodernism. Alan Kirby’s essay ‘The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond’ posits that while postmodernism espoused the separation of composer and responder, post-postmodernism is a movement fixated on the merging of composer and responder into one entity. With the popularity of social media culture, responders and composers can interact more than ever before. It’s hard to predict if this idea will influence cinema, but it has started to penetrate through television culture already. On TV shows like Big Brother and Dancing with the Stars, it is not merely the producers of the programmes who decide which contestants are evicted, but rather it is the producers and the audience in tandem who decide.
In the post-postmodern world we ostensibly live in now, metamodernism could well become the artistic norm. Metamodernism is the fusion of aspects of modernist art with postmodernist art in the new, digital millennium. It is driven by dichotomies – the dichotomy between New Sincerity and postmodern irony; between objectivity and self-reflexivity; between desiring a universal reality, truth or metanarrative, and acknowledging that this may not be possible.
Perhaps, there are recent films and filmmakers that reflect this.
There’s Terrence Malick’s fusion of voice-over order and Expressionist imagery, with ensemble narratology and Martin Heidegger’s postmodern fascination with the ‘question of being’ in The Thin Red Line. All of Lars von Trier’s films possess incredulity towards social ideologies and totalising norms, yet this is framed within a deeply sincere rumination on corrupted natural beauty. Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen from earlier this year questions Marie Antoinette’s historical heterosexuality by substantiating the rumours that she was a lesbian, expressing doubt over the historical truths we have been presented with; yet Jacquot strives to represent a pure, ethnographic version of the past through ornate aesthetics and a simple narrative arc.
So then, what will the future of postmodern cinema behold? Well, who knows?
In this series of articles, I have briefly mentioned a lot of postmodern films. If you were at all interested in anything I had to say in these five pieces, then I recommend you check out some of these other quintessential postmodern films that I didn’t really get a chance to explicitly mention:
- Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol, 1966)
- Week End (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
- Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
- Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
- Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989)
- Benny’s Video (Michael Haneke, 1992)
- Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000)
- Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
- Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)
- The Five Obstructions (Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth, 2003)
- Incident at Loch Ness (Zak Penn, 2004)
- A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
- Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
* I don’t want to go into too much depth about The Mirror, so read my full review of the film here: https://jcplikesfilms.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/6-the-mirror-dir-andrei-tarkovsky-1975/